Jacob Zuma’s demise is bad news for South Africa’s opposition parties

What now? Julius Malema (R) and Mmusi Maimane confer in parliament. EPA/Rodger Bosch

With Jacob Zuma now evicted from the presidency, South Africa has a chance to move on from its bleakest era since the stagnation and violence of the mid-to-late 1980s. Back then, political “reform” seemed dead in the water, and the vacuum was filled by state violence, lawlessness and a seemingly endless cycle of repression and resistance. The country came back from the brink thanks to the rise of the imaginative and realistic FW de Klerk, who could actually read the writing on the wall.

In the Zuma era, South Africa has faced systemic corruption, the capture of the state by private networks around the president, alarming economic decline, and a steady descent into deep state dysfunction. Once again, the possibility of renewal arises with the installation of a new, more dynamic and purposeful leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, intent on making a definitive break with a sordid past to once again demonstrate South Africa’s legendary capacity to pull off a comeback at five minutes to midnight.

But the country’s opportunity – and potential salvation – is very much a double-edged sword for its two principal opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Both have no option but to applaud Zuma’s departure – it is unambiguously in the national interest, and both were in the vanguard of the campaign to get rid of him. But Zuma also gave them a new lease of life. Much the momentum they built up over the past five years in national and local elections was directly attributable to Zuma’s misrule, incompetence and seemingly boundless impropriety. Barely had one scandal subsided before another reared its ugly head – and several would usually be unfolding at once. As a result, the resources of the African National Congress (ANC) were constantly funnelled into crisis management – all to the detriment of orderly and efficient government.

As far as the opposition were concerned, this was like shooting fish in a barrel.

Everyone needs a villain

They argued quite persuasively that the slow-motion car crash that was the Zuma presidency was irresponsibly sidelining the country’s profound social and economic challenges. Second, they were able to consistently skewer the ANC itself by highlighting its indulgence and protection of Zuma, and its refusal to remove him despite many] opportunities to do so. Their argument was quite compelling: while the country certainly had a “Zuma problem”, it also had an “ANC problem”.

The electoral windfall from this was considerable, particularly for the DA. The ANC saw its share of the vote decline in every election it contested under Zuma – in the August 2016 local elections, the party sunk to a new overall low of 54% and lost control of the country’s largest cities, raising the opposition’s hopes of depriving the ANC of an overall majority in the 2019 national election.

The DA’s Mmusi Maimane campaigns in Tshwane, 2016. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Today, while they obviously cannot admit it in public, the DA and the EFF could soon be nostalgic for the Zuma era – a golden age for opposition politics, an era of plenty when opportunities to embarrass Zuma personally – and the ANC generally – were delivered to them on a plate almost daily.

Neither the DA or the EFF will suddenly be bereft of arguments or haemorrhage their supporters, but they will have to work much harder to exploit political openings and earn votes. Ramaphosa is a much safer pair of hands than Zuma – more intellectually able, a more competent manager, much less scandal-prone, and not deeply embroiled in corrupt practices. His rise to power is being welcomed at home and abroad, not least by the credit ratings agencies – which have dealt the country some humiliating downgrades in recent years.

Righting the ship

That said, Ramaphosa faces all sorts of problems. His economic thinking is still extremely vague – and once he begins to define himself, he will inevitably struggle to keep his supporters happy. Both business interests and organised labour are currently cheering him on, but it’s hard to imagine both of them sticking with him once he definitively forms an agenda.

Ramaphosa supporters outside his swearing-in ceremony. EPA/Mark Wessels

Indeed, governing the ANC itself would tax even the most able of leaders in the most favourable of circumstances. The party is so broad a church that it may in fact be incapable of governing South Africa effectively. Ramaphosa is by no means universally loved within its ranks and it remains to be seen if he will encounter dogged resistance from those loyal to the old regime, particularly if and when he tries to uproot patronage networks and other venal practices both nationally and in the provinces.

Ramaphosa will run up against these realities soon enough – and when he does, the opposition parties need to have coherent alternative visions ready to go, particularly on growth, jobs and inequality. They must also be able to effectively articulate the message that, whoever its leader, the ANC is a liability to the country. It has conflated party and state, attracted careerists and self-enrichers to its ranks, and has promoted a culture of exceptionalism in which it refuses to view itself as just another ordinary party competing in a pluralist democracy.

Still, for now, the state of play is clear enough: Zuma’s departure is good news for the ANC and bad news for the opposition. As far as they’re concerned, the 2019 election is a much less exciting prospect than it was just a few weeks ago.